The WiFi in the Hall

Saturday 26th March 2016. A sign of the times. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, there are three public lavatories. Male, female, and a door marked ‘All Gender Toilet. Anyone can use this toilet regardless of gender identity or expression’.

* * *

Sunday 27th March 2016. The spring term is over. Current work: a second 5000 word essay, deadline of 2nd May. Reluctance overwhelms me, and I spend much of this week either working too slowly or not working at all. My diary is similarly affected (apologies for its lateness). It’s at times like this that I’m jealous of anyone who gets any work done at all.

I wonder about the psychology behind my problem. I can hardly put it down to lack of experience or lack of ability, what with my previous marks and my prize from Birkbeck last year, the one for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’. But then I think about Cyril Connolly’s quip: ‘whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising’.

Interesting to think about Connolly now. A well-known public intellectual in his lifetime, being the mid-twentieth century, but not so much read today. Perhaps his work is too of its time. I once remarked on this in a bookshop, to a middle-aged woman at the till. She looked at Connolly’s bald, ogre-like face on the cover of Enemies of Promise. ‘Well, it doesn’t help that he was no oil painting. I’d rather spend time with Billy Connolly’.

He became synonymous with one particular excuse for a lack of productivity: ‘the pram in the hall’. But while parenthood is obviously demanding, there’s no shortage of people who’ve managed to get other things done too. Indeed, for many writers and artists parenthood actually fuels their career, as it gives them an enhanced sense of purpose. For some, it might be a lack of a pram in the hall that can lead to apathy: there might be less of a feeling that the world truly needs them.

A far greater ‘enemy of promise’ these days is surely the internet. If Connolly were around today, perhaps he’d be less worried about the pram in the hall and more about the WiFi in the hall. Indeed, there’s been reports of a new trend where people deliberately go without broadband connections at home, in order to get more done. Phones are enough. Never mind the current desirable pastime of ‘Netflix and chill’. There’s now the temptation to Netflix and Procrastinate.

Connolly was full of great lines, though. ‘It is better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self’. Again, it’s a sentiment that begs questions of ‘what about…’. I think of Pepys’s coded diary. He was writing for a public too, just not the public of his own life. All writing for the self is still public writing. Today, social media has blurred the distinction completely.

I also love Connolly’s description of his wartime magazine Horizon closing down, when the office was cleared out: ‘Only contributions continued inexorably to be delivered, like a suicide’s milk.’

* * *

Wednesday 30th March 2016. Ben Innes, a British hostage on the hijacked Egypt Air plane, uses his phone to have his picture taken alongside his captor. The hijacker, who is bespectacled and unusually frail-looking for a terrorist, stands with a neutral expression, his belt of explosives in clear view (which will later turn out to be fake). His expression is one of vague confusion. Innes, meanwhile, who is big and young and resembles a rugby player on a package holiday, pulls a broad ‘Hello Mum!’ grin.

The photo is soon everywhere in the media. It is a gift to contemporary cultural discussion, touching on such themes as terrorism, appropriate behaviour, selfie culture, the ‘banter’ of modern lads (something other men do, I believe, not me), the tradition of British pluck in the face of adversity abroad, and perhaps most British of all, pedantry. Though the photo is soon known as ‘that hostage selfie’, people rush to point out that it’s not technically a ‘selfie’ at all, because the photograph is taken by a third party (an obliging stewardess).

I think of Lee Miller’s photograph of herself in Hitler’s bath tub, taken during the Allies’ liberation of Germany in 1945. That too was taken by a third party, but it was Miller’s idea. Her name is thus the one more associated with the image. So I would call that, like the Ben Innes photo, a ‘selfie’, because of the person instigating the image, the pose, and the self-presentation.

Selfies are about control. One resentment against terrorism is the double unfairness for the victims. Their life stories are not just brutally interrupted, but eclipsed within wider narratives. Footnotes in bigger tales. Innes’s photo turned this aspect around, rewriting the event in his favour. The captured hijacker, now awaiting trial, is being referred to as the ‘selfie hijacker’. In the eyes of the media – the reality that most matters to society – he has become a hijacker, hijacked.

If I were Innes, I’d tell the world that the ‘selfie’ was part of an art project, and contact the Tate Modern at once. But Innes is no Lee Miller: as soon the news cameras came for him at the airport, he put his hand over the lens and talked about the need to get back to his normal life. Though, rather wonderfully, his day job is in health and safety.

* * *

Thursday 31st March 2016. To the ICA to see Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman. Very much not for children, with a sex scene that would be considered unusually realistic were it not made of clay. The main character has David Thewlis’s British accent, but most of the other characters have the same adult male American voice, including all the women and children.

This only really hits me in the scene where the Thewlis character is on the phone to his wife, and the wife puts the child on the line. There’s no change in the speaker. When Thewlis eventually meets the Lisa of the title, she is his world’s ‘anomaly’, with a normal female voice. She alone connects with him. The film doesn’t quite open its ideas up fully, in the way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, but like much of CK’s work, it’s funny and original, and stays with me for days.

* * *

Tags: , , , , ,